Belligerent Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Wednesday 19 November 2008

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

For a land where Buddhism is constitutionally
designated as the ‘foremost’ religion, peace and
compassion are scarce commodities in Sri Lankan
politics. Monastery bells generally toll prayer times,
but a few in Sri Lanka have come to toll a call to war.

Venerable Athuraliye Rathana leads this group of
hawkish monks who are holding President Mahinda
Rajapaksa to his 2005 election promise of crushing
the Tamil Tiger rebels militarily. Talks and political
solutions, Venerable Rathana says, can come later,
“Peace negotiations simply made the LTTE (Tamil
Tigers) stronger. We mustn’t talk to them; we can
crush the LTTE. It is like surgery.”

These ‘war monks,’ as they have come to be known,
maintain that the rebels’ demand for a separate state
is based on the myth that
the northern and eastern
parts of Sri Lanka are
historically Tamil areas.
They insist that the whole
island has always been a
Sinhala Buddhist kingdom.
It is exactly this line of
thought that spawned
Tamil rebel groups and
plunged the country into
an internecine 25-year old
war that has killed more
than 70,000 people. Since
the collapse of the ceasefire agreement in 2006, more
than 5,000 people have been killed. The Sri Lankan
government officially withdrew from the Norwegian
brokered ceasefire at the beginning of this year. Fighting
between the rebels and the army has now intensified.
The Tamil Tigers, for their part, have launched
more suicide attacks. A senior politician and
army leader, Major General Janaka Perera, was
recently killed in a suicide blast blamed on the
rebel group. They have also conducted air raids
on Sri Lanka’s military bases using light aircraft.
According to United Nations estimates, more than
200,000 people are now displaced as the Sri
Lankan army continues its offensives in the Tamil-
dominated north. The army is reported to be
closing in on the rebel headquarters in Kilinochchi.
In a statement issued by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry,
President Mahinda Rajapaksa asserts, “security forces
are under strict instructions to avoid causing any civilian
casualties during this operation.” The government
has, however, ordered out aid workers from rebel-held
territory and it is reported that humanitarian aid is not
reaching affected areas.

Ethnic Tamils feel trapped between a government
who they do not trust and the Tamil Tigers who are
preventing them from fleeing rebel-controlled areas.
The origins of the ethnic conflict

In 1948, when the British gave Sri Lanka its
independence, the Sinhalese were a majority and the
Tamils were a minority. To the outside world, the Tamils
of Sri Lanka form one ethnicity, but within the country
they have always been classified as two distinct
groups: the Sri Lankan Tamils
and the Indian Tamils.

The Sri Lankan Tamils were
already living in the northern
and eastern parts of the
island before the arrival of the
British.

The British brought Indian
Tamils as indentured labour-
ers to work in Sri Lanka’s
flourishing plantation
sector. When the British
left, the disproportionately
high presence of Tamils in
the nation’s administration, education system and
economy caused malaise among the rural Sinhalese.
Traditionalist sentiments, fuelled by the ideas of
Buddhist thinkers such as Anagarika Dharamapala,
were already prevelant at this time among the
Sinhalese. Politicians stoked them further to gain
political mileage. None did it better than Solomon
Bandaranayake, whose first bill in parliament as
prime minister was the Sinhala Only Act of 1956.
Spurred on by the nationalism of his times, Solomon
Bandaranayake, a Sinhalese Anglican by birth,
converted to Buddhism. Like all born-again converts,
he acted with fervour. He put an end to the equal status
enjoyed by the Tamil language and made proficiency in
Sinhala a criterion for government jobs. This effectively
meant that if Tamil civil servants did not learn Sinhala,
they lost their jobs.
- 
The wounds are still raw among those Tamils who are old
enough to remember this, they accuse Bandaranayake
of having turned them into deaf-mutes overnight.
In response to the growing tide of Sinhala nationalism,
the Tamils organised themselves into a movement
that was modelled on Mahatma Gandhi’s paradigm
of non-violence. Bandaranayake eventually softened
a little and signed a pact conceding a certain
amount of political autonomy to Tamils in the
north and east. He paid the price soon after. He
was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959.
His wife, Srimavo Bandaranayake, the world’s first
female prime minister, took over only to make things
worse. She implemented a ‘standardisation’ policy
in the education system to raise the bar for university
entrance for Tamil students while simultaneously
lowering the cut off mark for the Sinhalese.
But perhaps the man who did the most damage to
Sinhalese-Tamil race relations in Sri Lanka was a
zealous Sinhalese Christian convert to Buddhism,
Junius Jeyawardena. He was the first in Sri Lankan
politics to muster the support of Buddhist monks,
capitalizing on the reverence that Asians generally
have for religious figures.

It was under Jeyawardena’s watch that discontent
among Tamils, particularly youths, hit a peak and
resulted in the birth of armed rebel groups that
paved the way for the Black July riots of 1983.
Longest ethnic conflict in Asia

President Mahinda Rajapakse now pursues the same
Buddhist-Sinhala domination. Under pressure from a
Sinhala nationalist party called the Janatha Vimukthi
Peramuna, which has a few monks as representatives
in parliament, Rajapakse pulled out of the 2002
Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement and
launched a full-scale war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.
Reports of human rights abuses have been rife since
Rajapaske became president. These include everything
from the abduction of journalists to the forcible eviction
of ethnic Tamils from Colombo. The Tamil Tigers,
for their part, have also continued their recruitment
of child soldiers and their use of civilians as shields.
Over the years the two issues that precipitated Sri
Lanka’s civil wars have been corrected- Tamil has
been reinstated as an official language and the
‘standardisation’ policy has been scrapped- but
discriminatory practices and attitudes against ethnic
Tamils persist in day-to-day life.

The whole community pays every time the
rebels launch an attack against the government.
Support for the Tamil Tiger rebel group is varied. The
Tamils of Sri Lanka are a very divided ethnic group who
don’t speak with the one voice that the Tigers claim to
represent.

The Tamils who live in the capital say that they will not go
back to the north even if there is a separate state. The
Tamils in the east say the northern Tamils don’t respect
them as equals. The Indian Tamils say they are not even
in the same league because their immediate ancestors
were from India. But they all reach a consensus on one
thing: they are second-class citizens in their own land.
They may not agree with the modus operandi of the
Tamil Tigers, but they think the rebel group has been a
force to reckon with against the government’s Sinhala-
Buddhist domination. Of all the armed groups that
were born in the early 80s, only the Tamil Tigers are
still active. The others have vanished or joined the Sri
Lankan government in some form.

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based think-
tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, offers some insight
into Tamil support for the rebel group, “By and large,
the vast majority [of Tamils] think the [Tamil Tigers] will
get them the best deal. Historically, that has been true.”
Earlier in October, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan
Singh, called for a negotiated settlement to the
conflict. Although President Rajapakse has promised a
devolution of powers to the Tamil areas in the north and
east if the Tamil Tigers are wiped out, Tamils don’t put
much stock in this. “A year ago the president had given
repeated assurances that while the military component
was going on, he would have a political package ready,”
Colombo-based journalist Iqbal Athas said to Reuters.
“The fact is that process has not moved forward ....”
Government forces are now reported to be close to
capturing rebel-held territory in the north. Not only the
fate of the Tamil Tigers, but also the future of the Tamils
in Sri Lanka, hangs in the pitched battle that is now
taking place.

Nachammai Raman is a correpondant for the Christian
Science Monitor.

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